Box of Delights: Richard Cork Follows Donald Judd's Quest to Purge Sculpture of Elaboration
Cork, Richard, New Statesman (1996)
Nobody was making art like Donald Judd in 1961. Quite out on his own, he began producing large, untitled paintings that rejected the prevailing movements of the period. In New York, where Judd had studied philosophy and art history at Columbia University a decade earlier, the splashiness of abstract expressionism was revered. But Judd had no intention of aping the loose, highly gestural mark-making of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. Nor did he share Roy Lichtenstein's fascination with the zany world of comic-strip imagery. Judd preferred the less exclamatory work of Barnett Newman, whom he considered the "best painter in the country". In his own 1961 work, Judd moved towards a harder, leaner vision.
In the first painting of Tate Modern's superb retrospective, executed on canvas, a thin white line meanders and ripples across a field of deep blue. But Judd soon jettisoned these undulations altogether. Working instead on masonite, he mixed sand with the paint to lend it a bulkier, more sculptural texture. The black lines drawn taut on the surface curve at either end, so that we recognise the form as a colossal hairpin. Yet the overall impact now centres on spareness and solidity, enriched by the intense red spread thickly across the picture surface.
With hindsight, we can sense Judd turning away from his earlier commitment to painting. He was searching for more palpable alternatives and, near the end of this decisive year, he became still more radical. Spreading an expanse of masonite and wood with sheer black paint, he lodged an aluminium baking pan at its heart. The entire work projects into space like a shallow relief, and the matt blackness surrounding the pan is an ideal foil for its gleaming gold lustre.
Even at his most severe and reductive, Judd never forsook the sensuous charge of colour. But he had to move further in the direction of sculptural form. He made more reliefs, mainly flat on the wall yet framed, at apex and base, by dark metal bands curving outwards. Judd must have relished the move into three-dimensional space. By 1963, he had decided to make a floor-based work, painting a rectangular wooden box with light cadmium red. Then, rather than leaving it whole, heinset a length of iron pipe at the top. An industrial ready-made, the pipe looks brazen and defiant, making the box seem almost opulent. Even so, it seems absolutely right in its shallow trough.
No wonder Judd attacked the critics' attempts to describe his work as minimal. "A simple box is really a complicated thing," he protested, echoing Constantin Brancusi's defence of his work. Both men, who can now be rewardingly compared in Tate Modern's two concurrent shows, shared a desire to purge sculpture of all unnecessary elaboration. But Judd went further than Brancusi by insisting that art "based on human bodies ... has had its day". In an arresting phrase, he declared that his sculpture should look as if it had arrived "full-blown in the middle of the night". …